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Serious musings

Engineers should write (more)

Writing is a timeless skill, our least-constraining technology for fixing and communicating thought. Yet it is my impression that most engineers do not write. They may write emails all day, be stuck presenting or attending meetings, be engaged in some plm/pdm/erp/crm whack-a-mole, and/or writing documentation, but all of these are communications towards some definite and obvious task. There's a difference between writing and answering. Answering is when you are following a process, writing to fill in a textbox or respond to some particular circumstance. Writing involves something new, it requires imagining your reader's comprehension and bringing them along, to convince them of your argument. Your object is a human person, and this makes all the difference.

This being #EngineersWeek, I'd like to share some reasons that I think engineers should write for unknown analogy to control engineering. Feedback loops are everywhere: processes whose outputs have some relation to their inputs. Control engineers typically desire limited processes, ones that can be controlled to perform a system's given function. But we generally desire human processes to be unlimited: ever increasing productivity, ever decreasing costs, ever greater functionality, etc. This is not mere semantics: most physical systems are inherently limited while those that involve the future, people, society, and other broad concepts are not inherently limited, or if they are limited in some way, those limits are rarely known exactly.

What does it matter if society undervalues companies in your industry, if you struggle to recruit new engineers and workers, if your friends and family don't understand what you do? Well, you, your company, your profession, and our society will be more limited than it might be. We will solve our problems more slowly because, as the economists say, we are unable to allocate resources correctly because the information needed to allocate is unknown. Though overblown, it matters that "...being a YouTube star was a more sought-after profession than being an astronaut among kids in the US and the United Kingdom."

Writing publicly, you can share the challenges you spend each day conquering. This has several results:

  1. you have new thoughts
  2. you're forced to reflect on why you spend your time as you do
  3. you can explain that to family, friends, and your wider community (deriving non-monetary compensation)
  4. you can step outside your immediate role, creating an outlet for under-appreciated interests
  5. you can explore what's hard and easy, what's liable to change
  6. you can tactfully vent about or earnestly desire the improvement of some (external) situation (eg software)
  7. you can increase your profile inside and outside your organization
  8. you can create artifacts that endure
  9. you will become a better writer and communicator

Here are some of my reasons. I'm not distinguishing here between blogs, newsletters, essays, and other formats, nor do I care whether your writing is self-hosted, shared on LinkedIn/etc, put on a company blog, or submitted to some industry forum, all are equivalent if they can be discovered, shared, and recommended.

Why don't engineers write more?

The common answer is that engineers can't write because of the risk of disclosing proprietary information. This is not persuasive, as proprietary information is really only interesting and useful to a small number of similarly-trained people at your competitors. Unless you're writing books that provide all the relevant context, it's quite difficult to communicate proprietary information to the degree required for a reader to act on it.

Maybe you don't have time?

Many of our predecessors found the time and ambition to write, despite having to compose by hand or typewriter. You certainly don't have free time as such, and I would not encourage you to approach writing as an enjoyable or relaxing activity. It takes work. But at the center of that work is the hope that your topics can be understood better, that you can find a way to work through your suspicions, elucidate the guesses of your gut, and eventually discern the structure and meaning of whatever it is that you wrestle with. Approaching writing as a method to grapple with things you don't know, or are insufficiently appreciated by your audience, it becomes a tool that you can use to identify and work on the big problems that will define and give satisfaction to your career. Creating and using tools is fundamental to engineering.

Do you have anything to say?

If you need inspiration, read what others are writing, engage them in conversation, and add whatever seems to be missing based on your professional or personal experience. Advice to your younger self is an excellent, recurring topic, as is explaining what excites you about your work or profession.

More likely, when starting, you'll have a few things to say about too many topics, and the task is really to think through them one at a time. When I have an idea for a post I open a text file on my phone's Dropbox and write a couple of the imagined core points down, along with the motivating context or link. This gets the idea out of my head, freeing me to return to my prior task. These starts loiter until I'm in a writing mood; on examining these, those whose idea I feel is still worth telling may get additional thoughts. Focusing on one, I start linking the points together, usually writing too much and verbosely. I try not to edit on the same day as writing, as a little delay greatly improves my editing. Eventually it's good enough and up it goes!

Why do some engineers write?

I'm not aware of any studies (!needed!) but software engineers seem to write a lot more than other engineers. They also have nice aggregators that surface good writing, thereby encouraging it. One explanation: Software moves fast, which means it is subject to fads. The only way to avoid fads is to discern where technologies and the market are moving, to skate to where the puck will be. And once you've committed to some technology that you're pretty sure is not a fad but hasn't won the day, writing about your evaluation of the alternatives and experience so-far is a great way to encourage others to adopt the same technology. Choosing which technologies to bring into your organization and build upon is, after all, one of the core competencies of software engineers. This is a positive feedback loop, one that advances you and your organization by focusing resources on key problems while avoiding those that are properly solved elsewhere.

Some civil engineers and many architects blog, most often to promote their work but also, I'd say, owing to an inability to resist explaining and justifying the huge edifice that's suddenly part of some community. They use a lot of software and, to my eye, enjoy a more diversified software ecosystem than mechanical or electrical engineers, introducing aspects of the emerging technology dynamic of software engineering.

In contrast, the work of industrial, materials, chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineers is just not visible, at least until a crane collapses, plane crashes, ship catches fire, or train derails. And that is not the time to be extolling the value, challenge, and high standards of a profession.

Additional exhortations:

I don't have a conclusion per-se but will leave you with some rationales for writing that I appreciate:

Some engineering-focused blogs/publications I read

Tweet me your comments, reasons for writing, or technical blog recommendations.